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    November 5th, 2007

    ♫ If you’re screening your calls
    I know you’re busy and I won’t keep you long♫

    Words and music by Evan & Jaron.

    One of the oldest pieces of technology to be found in a law office (aside from a pencil, eraser and paper) is the telephone. Since this technology is fairly well established and has enjoyed a near 100% utilization factor in its latter years, expanding as it has to include cell phones, airplane phones and VoIP calls (Voice over Internet Protocol – otherwise known as internet telephony), one would expect that lawyers have adapted to the device fairly well. However, it would appear (anecdotally) that there are some lawyers that have not fully developed the high art of using the telephone. Accordingly, for their benefit we take this opportunity to run thru different tactics and strategies that have been suggested in order to make the best use of this technology:

    First, given the widespread use of telephone answering devices, it is to be expected that you will not reach your intended callee (you being the caller) on the first attempt, or even the 10th. As such, you must learn how to properly use these telephone messaging devices. The first thing to keep in mind is that the quality of the telephone line is sometimes poor (particularly with cell phones) and the recording device/media may not be the best or may be worn. Either one or both of these may be true and as such, the device may fail to adequately capture your voice and leave your message in both an inaudible and incomprehensible state. Taking this into consideration and factoring in that your time is costly, it is necessary that you say your name and call-back number as quickly as possible. Mumble if at all possible. Never repeat your name and number – again – never repeat it, for to do so may be interpreted as a subtle sign that you have failed to gain the upper-hand. You, of course, hope that your callee will burn up valuable billable time in trying to decipher your message and in determining who called and what you actually said. As an added bonus, do not fail to mention your firm’s name in the phone message. You wish to leave the impression with your callee that they should inwardly tremble at the thought of shortly speaking to someone (but not quite sure exactly who) at “Grinde, Pulverize and Pound”.

    Second, in order to preserve your billable time even further, have your staff call to leave a message for the callee to then call you back. Your staff member is instructed to say that unfortunately, Mr. X is unavailable at this time. This way you can truthfully say that you have actually done something (lobbed the communication ping-pong ball into the other side’s court) without actually doing anything. As an added bonus, instruct your staff members that they are never to leave their last name. The message is simply to “Call Mary at….(incomprehensible)”. Assuming that the callee finally determines the right number to call, they will be met with the answer “There are 15 Mary’s working at Dewey Gotcha & Howe – to whom do you wish to speak?” This tactic, of course, is aimed at further delay. Experienced readers will recognize this as the well-known “Hail-Mary pray for time” play.

    Assuming that you are now the callee, the third bit of advice is to choose the appropriate time of day to return a call. First, aim to do so very early in the morning. This is designed to maximize the underlying message that while they are not at work, you are. Earn bonus marks by topping it off with a voice mail message to the effect that when they get into the office, they can call you back. Other variations on this theme are to call just after 12 noon (hoping that the callee will then be off at lunch and thereby unable to take the call) or call well after 6 pm, gauging that they have already left.

    The last tactic in this area is to use your voice mail and call-display to screen all calls during normal office hours. Moreover, set up your voice mail system so that the caller is continually provided with a list of things to do such as “Press 1 to speak to Mr. X, press 2 to speak to Mr. X’s assistant” etc – but ensure that none of these actually results in connecting to anything but further voice mail options. This ensures that your billable time is actually spent working on client matters that you deem most important. After all, if it was really important, they would send you an email instead, now, wouldn’t they?? Of course, some people do use their secretary to screen calls, but this is seen as being less-effective option, as the caller actually does get a chance to speak to a live person.

    Now despite all these tactics, sooner or later someone will actually manage to reach you on the telephone. Desperate times call for desperate measures! Here it is handy to have some last-ditch tactics close at hand. First, you need a sheet of crinkly cellophane placed near the telephone to simulate static on the line which enables you to request the caller to call back – at which point you will ensure that all calls will then go directly to voice mail. Of course, many readers will also recognize the well-worn line: “Um, I would love to continue with this, but I have a meeting…can I call you back?” If you are on a cell-phone, you can always say: “Hello? Hello? You are fading…I can’t seem to hear you… either you or I am in a dead spot” at which point you then hang up on the call.

    There is always the realization that the telephone line may not be clear (cell phones are notorious here) and that the person with whom you are nominally speaking may have a hearing deficiency (all of us lose a certain amount of hearing as we grow older). The other party may not have a volume control on their phone that allows them to amplify your voice. Accordingly, take this into account and speak as softy as possible, which keeps the other person off-center and guessing. Moreover, it may force them to discontinue the call until a later time when they can hear you better.

    All of these suggestions, properly applied, will allow you to prevent the telephone from being used as it actually was designed – an evil Machiavellian technology designed by others to take control of your life! Of course, this is all tongue-in cheek and I am not suggesting that any lawyer actually does any of these deliberately or otherwise.

    However, there is the view that the telephone, graciously and courteously used, with due respect for the time, schedules, disabilities and lives of our opposing counsel, clients and others, can be a very effective time saving device that can help lawyers cut to the chase and solve problems, ease conflicts and sort out lives. Like any technology, the telephone is a tool and how we view that tool and put it to use is reflected in the bigger picture of how we approach our obligations of professional courtesy, respect, dignity for others and ethics. And perhaps in this way we all can continue to use this ancient technology effectively, thereby avoiding screening calls and causing even greater stress in our busy lives.

    (originally published in PracticeTalk in the Canadian Bar Association – BC Branch’s newsletter BarTalk)

    This entry was posted on Monday, November 5th, 2007 at 10:54 pm and is filed under Issues facing Law Firms, Trends. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

    4 Responses to “The Fine Art of not Communicating…”
    1. Ensure That Effective Communication Says:

      Effective Client Communications…

      Whether you know it or not, your past clients are your best source of new clients. Finding a new client is time consuming and expensive. If you can find a way to increase your pipeline without the time commitment and expense of prospecting, would you b…

    2. pontjo Says:

      Thanks for your interesting article

    3. mymiri Says:

      Nice blog btw

    4. James Wu Says:

      Just wanted to say thanks for the great post ! Found your blog on Google and I’m happy I did. I’ll be reading you on a regular basis ! Thanks again 🙂

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